Undoubtedly one of the foremost guitar pioneers of gospel, ragtime and blues, Reverend Gary Davis was a remarkable performer who not only dazzled audiences with his guitar virtuosity but also served as a mentor to a new generation of guitar pickers. With an enormous repertoire that encompassed many different genres, he first recorded in 1935 but spent many years in the musical wilderness before his rediscovery in the 1950s. In turn, he came to exert a massive influence on the folk & blues revival of the 1960s, inspiring many great guitarists including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen and Stefan Grossman. He also left a formidable body of songs, both secular and spiritual, that have been recorded by amongst others Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, Taj Mahal and the Grateful Dead.
Born in 1896 on a farm in the Piedmont section of upstate South Carolina, Gary Davis was one of eight siblings, of whom only two survived childhood. His upbringing was a tough one, being raised by his grandmother due to his mother’s absence and a troublesome father who was shot dead when he was only 10 years old. Of his blindness Davis once explained, ”So far as I know, according to the statement of my grandmother, I taken the sore eyes when I was three weeks old. And the doctors put something in my eyes cause ulcers to grow over my eyes and cause me to go blind.”
Despite his affliction, Davis taught himself how to play the guitar as a young boy, making his first instrument from a pie pan and a broomstick around the age of 7. He also learned to read braille and managed to find comfort in both music as well as his strong religious conviction. By the time Davis was fifteen, he was playing in a local string band in Greenville alongside his guitar mentor Willie Walker, a somewhat mythical figure in blues history whose remarkable playing had a huge influence on Davis’ style.
During the mid-1920s Davis married and travelled around the Carolinas and beyond, performing in the streets and teaching guitar to make a living. He developed a lightning-quick fingerpicking style using his thumb and forefinger to pick out layered, complex melodies, which he used to accompany his wounded, weather-beaten voice that seemed to cry with both pain and joy. Remarkably, his singular guitar technique may have been aided by an accident in which he slipped on ice and broke his wrist. Due to the awkward way in which the bones set, he was ever after forced to play with an oddly cocked left hand, which many believe assisted him in some unusual chord fingerings.
In 1935 he travelled to New York to record 16 songs for the ARC label, which included just two blues numbers, ‘Cross And Evil Woman Blues’ and ‘I'm Throwin' Up My Hands’, along with his trademark spiritual material such as ‘I Am The Light Of This World’, ‘Twelve Gates To The City’ and ‘I Saw The Light’. Although Davis didn't entirely abandon secular music until his ordination as a minister in 1937, it was this decision to play mainly spirituals instead of blues numbers which led to him joining the ranks of players such as Reverend Edward Clayborn, Blind Joe Taggart and Blind Willie Johnson as a so-called guitar evangelist which would not have helped his first recordings sell well in a market hungry for secular blues music. Around the time of these recordings, he crossed paths with other key Piedmont blues artists of the day including Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as Blind Boy Fuller, an accomplished player over whom Davis exerted a huge influence as a guitar mentor.
In 1937 Davis re-married to Annie Bell Wright, a woman as deeply spiritual as himself who looked after him devotedly until his death in 1972. They moved to Mamaroneck, New York in 1940 where Annie had found work as a housekeeper. Later that same year they moved to 169th Street in Harlem, where they lived for the next 18 years and where Davis became a minister of the Missionary Baptist Connection Church. He also released a small string of albums in the late 1950s and early 1960s such as Pure Religion & Bad Company and Say No To The Devil, but he might have remained a historical footnote had it not been for the folk and blues revival that swept the country in the early 1960s. With this new and young audience eager to experience his authentic and singular musicianship, Davis toured extensively in the US as well as Europe and played at numerous folk festivals including the Cambridge and Newport Folk Festivals, becoming a hugely popular figure. Favouring a large six-string instrument which he affectionately called “Miss Gibson” in honour of the manufacturer, he also taught budding guitarists eager to pick up his inimitable style. One such student was Stefan Grossman, who remembers being told by his teacher, "You've got three hands to play a guitar and only two for a piano. Well, your forefinger and your thumb — that's the striking hand, and your left hand is the leading hand. Your left hand tells the right hand what strings to touch, what changes to make....One hand can't do without the other."